Realistically, how are you meant to review an album with so much personal invective and venom projected on to it? This goes far beyond issues of objective vs subjective – everyone seems to have a powerfully felt opinion on Lizzy Grant and they all think each is crucial to understanding the singer. Many feel cheated. Why? Hers is a persona. Don’t believe a word she says. You don’t need to. It doesn’t matter. She whispers lines codified in the scaffolding of female objectification and how you feel about it makes her neither dangerous as a role model nor puerile as an artist. This truly is a case where words have no power. She’s a fucking indie chanteuse for god’s sake – get a grip.
So how are the songs? Pitching herself as cut-rate Beth Gibbons with an edge it’s all smoky-hued damsel in a nightclub and long flowing dress with attitude. These are modest ambitions. And regardless of the SNL non-incident, Del Rey can really hold a tune. The voice isn’t jaw dropping but Blue Jeans, Video Games, Radio and Dark Paradise are all thoroughly agreeable pop tunes. The remainder, less so and samey – National Anthem reminded me of Lady Sovereign. OK, moving on. Born To Die might not be for the ages, but it’s certainly – and enjoyably – for the now and not the failure made out to be. I listened to Born To Die whilst putting together a new IKEA shelving unit. It served its purpose.
The great thing about reviewing records is not, as you might imagine, being party to pre-release snippets of the new Veronicas opus. Rather, it’s waking up one morning to find, nestling in the womblike safety of the family inbox, albums like Apocalyptic Youth.
Casablanca are, of course, Swedish – that’s where all the new music of consequence issues from these days – and they are, in two words, bloody brilliant. Of course new music is something of a misnomer, since the band peddles a delirious mixture of late ‘70s Brit rock raunch (frontman Anders Ljung is a sonic dead ringer for venerable pub rocker Graham Parker) and US FM radio cool, this delicious conflation augmented with just a hint of hair metal pizzazz to round things off. It’s a heady mélange, with every song slinking in and out of your consciousness seemingly in an instant yet still leaving an unforgettable chorus as a calling card. Standout track Rich Girl is pure ‘70s arena rock nirvana; a jangling, almost Killers-like guitar figure ushering in a tough, punchy pop song that wouldn’t have gone amiss on albums from the likes of The Knack or The Motors back in the day – make no mistake, this is the real deal, in all its tattered, knowingly retro glory. If you think of yourself as something of a hipster, stay away from this. If you know what’s what, musically, however, you won’t hear a better record all year.
It'd be too easy to say that your feelings about Shearwater’s latest album are a function of your attachment to the ‘80s. But it’s partially true. The Austin, Texas-based band sound like a time capsule from the decade normally written off for chintzy keyboards and teased haircuts. But beneath that surface were dozens of bands who were, and are, unfairly disregarded – victims of fickle trend-watching and label-affixing; Psychedelic Furs, Jesus and Mary Chain, New Order, The Smiths, The Replacements. Need I go on?
Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg has a vocal range that is a near perfect DNA match for another timeless ‘80s band; Mark Hollis’ Talk Talk. It’s an odd back-of-the-throat low warble, with a vibrato that teeters on the cusp of despair and fury. On occasions Meiburg will arch back and unwind a searing, sky-scraper wail so unaffected you might just blush, such as on the blistering final track Star of the Age for example; an emotional and anthemic showstopper that welds the magisterial bravado of Simple Minds circa The Breakfast Club onto the sneakily-cribbed melody of Talking Heads’ Heaven. Odd bedfellows, maybe, but that’s only the half of it.
Whilst fellow arch-revivalists Arcade Fire trade in over-the-top bombast, hammering points into mushy insignificance, Shearwater are more inclined to mix things up by throwing in obscure chords or unpredictable phrasings as they do on the opening track Animal Life. In amongst the throbbing urgency are some off-kilter deviations which serve as harbingers for the album ahead. Animal Joy’s tent pole track – the one holding the entire album together – is Insolence. Low rattles give way to hanging single piano note dirges, before choruses crash and rise whilst Meiburg reaches for the heavens again. Ordinarily this sort of overwrought approach is insufferable and pretentious, but that voice just makes it all work.
There are missteps, though. Immaculate is a straight up-and-down rocker in search of a reason of being. Not only does it fail to find one, it comes off as a Maximo Park B-side. Brevity is its key attribute. Likewise Run The Banner Down drifts by without a tangible hook in under three minutes. The confines of a time limits work against Shearwater, they need space to breathe and ramble to epic conclusions.
Nevertheless, Animal Joy is a complex, confident and demanding album.
The first release by Canberra locals Mornings – recorded in the new Brick Lane studio space of Shoeb Ahmad (hellosQuare), mastered by Carl Saff (Chicago, IL), with cover art by Nadia Hooton – is strong, cohesive and captures the unmistakable energy of their live shows. The instrumental (albeit, Flamingo) collection exhales some Fugazi-esque unapologetic attitude and the layered, instrumental strength of bands like My Disco, Battles and Explosions In The Sky.
The sound is multidimensional – from the relentless coal train that sucks you under and spits you out (2:1), to the sly lullaby (Able) that mercilessly throws you from sleep into free-fall, to the hipster shuffle-inducing Alaska.
Yvonne Lam caresses the drums before knocking your socks off with the same rhythmic ferocity she delivers live (great to see a female contribution to the Canberra music scene). As one avid fan exclaimed at a recent live show, “she can really hit those skins!” The bass (Alejandro Alcatraz) is the heartbeat, grounding the harmonic and melodic knots woven by the guitarists (John Binos, Jordan Rodgers). Treated percussion and electronics roll around like ghosts, and bird calls give a sense of free space.
Effortlessly tight, Mornings delivers raw musical energy, interspersed with insect-like inflections and industrial might. Breakdowns drop with brutal intensity but there are poignant, destructible moments too (Buffalo). The epic Mornings machine lifts you above the city like it’s King Kong, loses control and leaves you in a happy heap on the floor.
By the powers of fate, the planets aligned to place inventive musos Blake Scott and Stevie Striker side by side as neighbours. After adopting the curious moniker of The Peep Tempel, putting out some releases on vinyl and adding bassist Matt Chow, they have released their debut long player. The music carries a deliberately harsh edge, to reflect the mean street themes of living on the bones of your bum and having run-ins with the law. Veiled by distortion to project a ragged vibe, the venom flows through at a furious pace in the opening track. Collusion uses a manic, post-punk delivery, before the guys switch to blues rock with a tribal rhythm in Mission Floyd. Blake hurls the vitriolic “I will hunt for you until the day that I die” into the punter’s face as the music yowls about him like fretting dogs. Traffic runs headlong into a hedonistic jam session, with a background patter of race calls which hints at the obsessive desperation of gambling. The Peep Tempel teases with flashes of the styles of other bands, channelling Public Image Limited in the foot stomping Thank You Machiavelli and the Kings of Leon in the redneck chant of Do What You Want.The band theme song Down at the Peep Tempel is a traffic light hoe-down, a political manifesto that degenerates into an all in jam. It’s a soundtrack for a cinematic display of life’s seamier side.
Previous volumes in the Free The Beats ongoing compilation series have seen Jack Prest’s Sydney-based collective unearthing some of the most interesting leftfield hip-hop beats currently emanating from lesser known producers around Australasia. For this fifth volume, the theme centres around sci-fi, the track listing featuring the odd recognisable name such as Prest and Pmajor alongside a score of newcomers like The Silent Titan, Kaputs and Kit Complete. From the very outset the emphasis falls firmly upon laidback, head nodding instrumental grooves, with Admin Beats opening We’ve Got To Contact Them cutting up and scattering retro spoken B-movie samples over a juddering backdrop of boom-bap snares, funk guitar stabs and bleeping electronic noises that call to mind the background sounds on the bridge, before Able’s We Have No Time ventures out into dubstep-kissed soul as booming sub-bass drops roll beneath liquid-sounding synth stabs and noodling jazz-centred keys.
Elsewhere, New Zealander Louis McCallum sends a clattering percussion break rolling against flourishes of brittle retro synths on Scary Music Pt.2 that calls to mind one of Daedelus’ eccentrically playful excursions as dreamlike synthetic burbles and wide-eyed pitch-bends gradually resolve themselves around a sturdy backbone of MPC beats and zapping electronics, before Kaputs’ BRunner sees the more brittle and glitchy synthetic textures rising to the forefront. An impressive compilation that’s well worth seeking out – Free The Beats Vol. 5 is available as a limited CDR run or free download from www.freethebeats.com .
Back before everyone was divided on whether vocals should be affected in any way, whether autotune was breathing life into or taking it away from pop, in simpler times, arty bands used to get loop, chorus, delay and echo pedals and use them on their vocalist, not just their guitars. Smashing us straight back into that era and sound is Minnesota’s POLIÇA (pronounced ‘Po-Lisa’). A by-product of some of neo-soul supergroup Gayngs recording sessions, the band formed when Ryan Olson got Channy Leaneagh in for some session vocals, and decided she needed her own band. In Poliça, Channy’s dreamy, arty pop vocals loop and play with each other over the top of brooding keys and strings, creating an engaging environment, and then... then... Then comes the real highlight of the band – two drummers, that create the most amazing cacophony of percussion at every right turn, restrained when needed, chaotic with every tension release – see Violent Games as just one of this album’s many highlights. The band flits between this sophisticated elegant pop and this twisting and frenetic dance, vulnerable and longing in equal measures with self-assured and resolved confidence expressed in each track. This album is stunning, exciting and exquisite for a soul band’s experimental side project. Make sure you track it down in some form or another.
That’s what my English master Mr DJ ‘Daddy’ Wedd used to say to us in reverent tones whenever we waded in with opinions on the plot of some book or other he’d told us to read. We inevitably came up with hypotheses wildly wide of the mark precisely because we had, indeed, jumped to conclusions. It’s an awful personality defect to possess.
All of which leads me to Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth. Like many millions of others across the interwebs, I saw the video for the first single to be released from this album, Tattoo, and chimed in with my own pithy observations about how the whole VH reunion appeared to be dead in the water even before it had properly started. How wrong can a man be? Of course there are still reservations - I will still be very surprised if this unit holds it together long enough to complete an American tour - but for the moment that’s just a potential pifall for the future. For the minute all we have is the music, and it’s a delight to be able to report that A Different Kind of Truth is Van Halen’s best album in a very, very long time.
Tattoo, it turns out, is a bit of a grower, and you’ll welcome it as it ushers in the album as a bit of an old friend. But it’s far from the best track here, as one by one the likes of She’s the Woman, You and Your Blues and, perhaps best of all, the utterly titanic, classic VH of Blood and Fire prove, against all the odds, what a great band Van Halen continues to be in the twenty first century. With David Lee Roth at the helm again, vocally the band is a very different beast to the slick, radio friendly version fronted by Sammy Hagar in the late '80s and early '90s. Hagar is a consummate professional, a great singer, and a great guitarist and songwriter to boot, and his contribution to Van Halen tended to overshadow even Edward Van Halen, who seemed to retreat into a synth-obsessed world of doing just enough to get by whilst Hagar carried the show.
Roth is nowhere near the musician Hagar is, though he’s ten times the showman. Consequently Edward Van Halen has had to up his game considerably to cover all the gaps left by Sammy, and put simply the man hasn’t sounded this good since 1980’s Women and Children First, churning out a series of stinging riffs and gobsmacking solos that are an absolute, genuine pleasure to hear.
Backing this up is a marvellous performance from percussive brother Alex who also hasn’t sounded this good in years. He hasn’t had to, of course – FM radio doesn’t really have a place for double-kick mayhem – but when he fires up the bass pedals behind a classic Edward arpeggio/clawhammer solo on the highly mobile As Is you’ll happily feel like its 1984 all over again.
And what about DLR? Undoubtedly this is the best he’s sounded too since his late '80s solo peak saw him happily ruling the airwaves with the likes of Just Like Paradise. He sounds relaxed and on form throughout, throwing in little laconic ad libs all over the place and contributing a fine set of humorous lyrics far beyond the by-numbers pop nonsense often offered up by Hagar. This is at its most glorious on the bluesy Stay Frosty, which itself harks back to Ice Cream Man from the band's storied eponymous debut album.
I should probably say at this point that I am a massive fan of VH fronted by Hagar and with bass and backing vocals provided by the faintly ridiculous Michael Anthony (Anthony here is replaced by Edward's son Wolfgang, who is similarly rotund but isn't the possessor of anywhere near as silly a face as Anthony), but when this album clicks you realise there’s absolutely no need for any other line-up of this band to exist anymore. Welcome back, and please hold it together!